Archive | August, 2013

Why are fictional Serial Killers so popular?

9 Aug

— Originally appeard on The Qwillery:

The popularity of serial killers in fiction is at an all-time high. From a dozen different television programs to the latest movie or best-seller list, you’re gonna find a prototypical serial killer: middle-aged white guy who’s knowledgeable, clever, eccentric, and just doesn’t give a damn whether you live or die.
I have two books with serial killers coming out this Fall: CAIN’S BLOOD (a techno thriller) and PROJECT CAIN (an accompanying spinoff novel for teens). In both, I spend time with some of the most infamous serial killers in American history (Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, etc.) and their teenaged counterparts (clones). While researching and writing the books, I was mostly focused on the lives of these men and the possible science/causes behind their crimes. I never really stopped to think Why folk (including me) were so interested in these tales. Now that I’ve started promoting the books, however, I’ve gotten the “Why do we seem to like serial killers so much” question enough that I had to think about that Why some and jot down some thoughts here.

1] The early/quick answer is morbid curiosity: the same reason we check out traffic accidents, gape at Holocaust footage, and spend our dollars on slasher films and novels. Our macabre and innate fascination with someone else’s demise. We all know we’re gonna die eventually, so watching some other poor guy go down crowns the King of all Schadenfreude. And fiction makes this dark pursuit even more enjoyable because it’s, well, fiction. No one really got hurt. Right?

2] Serial killers are the monsters among us. High estimates suggest that as many as 4% of Americans are sociopaths; those who just don’t care about the feelings, needs or lives of others. That’s twelve million people. Are they all serial killers, of course not. Most, 98%, are just self-centered jerks, leaving only 2% of those twelve million as violent murder-ready souls. But that’s, um, 240,000 Americans. Maybe we’ll go with the lowest estimates, and it’d be only 40,000 Americans capable of murdering without a second thought. Better? And the really interesting/horrifying part is that they look exactly like everyone else. No long dripping fangs or hockey masks or green scales. Most are men, and that’s half the people you know. Neighbor, coworker, husband, classmate. The sun or a bucket of water won’t make these guys melt away. They’re real, and here, and you just might have passed one today. And it’s that possibility that makes them very interesting, indeed.

3] Serial killers may be our vampire. In 1897, Stoker’s Dracula was largely a response to fifty years of Victorian behavior control. At the peak of this sexually suppressed/repressed culture, came a romanticized being who screwed for fun and flung and spilled hot fluids better than a Nickelodeon game show. The last twenty years in the United States have produced similar cultural changes. From the workplace to the classroom, we don’t seem to have rules anymore – we just have referees. Our language and personal exchanges are largely controlled now by human resource memos, lawsuit-leery administrators, and the PC mob whose good intentions sometimes trample common sense. In reply, the serial killer: A romanticized being who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the right things to say or do. Living beyond Good or Evil in world nervous about what to say to someone during Christmas. A tragic hero, of sorts, for our existential age. In traditional Tragedy, the hero is the one at odds with society because he/she doesn’t fit the system and is fighting to secure their rightful station in the world. Yes, these men are bad. But they’re bad in a way we just maybe admire. Or, at least, “understand.”

Add it all up, and you get a lethal invisible fantasy imbued with smarts and style far beyond the real-life version. Fiction’s good at that. So these specific monsters likely aren’t going anywhere for a long, long while…